Town mouse on a festival of biography

What a joy to go to the John Murray drawing room at 50, Albemarle Street, and hear John Sessions reading from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. It was May 16: 250 years to the day since the lexicographer and poet met his future biographer at the bookshop of Johnson’s friend, Tom Davies. The doctor particularly liked visiting Davies on account of his pretty wife. Endearingly, Boswell may have embellished the episode when he wrote it up 28 years later (in the Life, the story is told at greater length than in his journal), but only to highlight his own discomfiture at the great man’s put-downs.

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The priapic Boswell doesn’t, in all respects, offer an example for the young person to emulate. But he did establish biography as a literary genre and was one of its greatest practitioners. His ear is sharp, his stories funny, his prose concise. He has now lent his name to the world’s only festival of biography, which opened on Friday, at Auchinleck House, in Ayrshire, the country house built by his father. Ingeniously, James Knox, the festival’s founder and organiser of the reading in Albemarle Street, has discovered another architectural connection: Davies’s house in Bloomsbury is now the Balthazar Bakery. We ate Boswell buns.

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